'Sink or swim': The future of the monarchy rests on King Charles's newly crowned head

King Charles III during the Accession Council at St James's Palace, London, where King Charles III is formally proclaimed monarch. Charles automatically became King on the death of his mother, but the Accession Council, attended by Privy Councillors, confirms his role. Picture date: Saturday September 10, 2022.
Charles waited 70 years to become King and the future of the monarchy rests with him. (PA)

In his short stint as king, the legacy of King Charles III’s reign so far is how long he waited for it. As history's most patient heir-in-waiting, it wasn't until 70 years after becoming the heir apparent at the age of three that he succeeded Queen Elizabeth II.

At an age in his life when most are thinking of when to retire or slow down, the United Kingdom's newly-minted head of state has only just started the biggest job of his life. The watercolour painting he famously used to do in his spare time is now very much a thing of the past. “I don’t have time for it anymore,” the workaholic royal told an aide earlier this summer.

He wasn't wrong. Since taking the helm of the House of Windsor on 8 September, the King has not stopped. As he led the UK through public mourning, he dutifully toured the country to meet the streams of people who came out to pay their respects. Behind the scenes he met with world leaders, Commonwealth Realm high commissioners, foreign dignitaries and a plethora of international royals. On Wednesday he finally “rested” at home, quietly working on those red boxes his mother used to breeze through with ease.

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The public sentiment and goodwill following Her Majesty's death has seen the new Carolean age off to a strong start, but Charles’ biggest test will be making it last. Unlike the Queen’s near-impeccable reign, her son has stepped into her pristine shoes with mud and all.

28th September 1952:  Princess Elizabeth watching her son Prince Charles playing in his toy car while at Balmoral.  (Photo by Lisa Sheridan/Studio Lisa/Getty Images)
Charles and his mother pictured in 1952 at Balmoral. It would be a further 70 years before he would be crowned king. (Getty Images)

In the 18 months leading up to this moment, his media coverage was dominated by an ongoing police investigation into allegations of cash for honours scandals linked to his charity, the Prince’s Foundation, that lead to the resignation of the foundation’s CEO. There were also the reports that Charles had accepted significant charitable donations in plastic bags stuffed with cash. While none involved any wrongdoing by the King, the claims raised serious concerns about his personal judgment and put him in an uncomfortable spotlight.

One might argue that, already in his eighth decade, it is unlikely Charles will truly get to carve out a proper legacy as King. Especially when you compare it to the impressive platinum reign of his mother, whose death has been a reminder of just how much she achieved during her time on the throne. But a look at his great-great grandfather, King Edward VII, shows that big impact can be made in small time.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 05: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 24 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME) Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince George of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Princess Charlotte of Cambridge, Prince Louis of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge stand on the balcony of Buckingham Palace following the Platinum Pageant on June 5, 2022 in London, England. The Platinum Jubilee of Elizabeth II is being celebrated from June 2 to June 5, 2022, in the UK and Commonwealth to mark the 70th anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth II on 6 February 1952. (Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)
The Carolean era has begun with Charles needing to make a big impact quickly. (Getty Images)

At 59, ‘Bertie’ became the sovereign after the 64-year-reign of Queen Victoria in 1901. Though his reputation was far from stellar (many considered him a rebellious playboy), by the time of his death nine years later he had managed to achieve a successful reign—greatly improving the popularity of the monarchy, demonstrating a solid knack for diplomacy, and even showing up his contemporaries with quasi-progressive views on race.

Charles is no doubt hoping for his own successes. Though he is currently enjoying fevered support from monarchists, the question still remains whether he can extend that to the rest of the nation and younger Brits? Recent polls show that Gen-Z and young millennials—many of whom were still moved by the death of the Queen—are less interested in the monarchy than ever. And while it may not appear to be his highest priority, it’s worth pointing out that the elder royalists rushing out to buy commemorative newspapers aren’t going to be around forever.

Watch: Key moments from the accession council as Charles III formally declared King

Ultimately, Charles needs to ensure that the monarchy keeps up with the times. In some ways it’s something he has been doing since first taking on royal duties. Whether it’s his focus on environmental activism since the 1960s, his deep interest and presence in Britain’s panoply of faith communities, or the 40 years of charitable contributions the Prince’s Trust has made to disadvantaged youth, even naysayers would be hard pushed to suggest that the King hasn’t tried to be progressive in the best way a sheltered heir can.

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But there’s room for improvement. The racism that was alleged by the Sussexes still lies in the tall grass it was kicked into and The Firm’s silence during the Black Lives Matter movement is still hard to forget for those it mattered to. And as more of the 14 Commonwealth Realms move towards ditching the monarchy and calling for reparations (an inevitable outcome for countries seeking full de-colonisation), the carefully scripted “personal sorrow” over the slave trade first wheeled out by Charles will continue to not be an acceptable response for the monarchy’s significant role in it.

The departure of those realms (Antigua and Barbuda being the most recent to announce plans for a republic referendum) will see the power of the House of Windsor continue to shrink on the world stage. If anything, the Royal Family will soon need more of the U.K. on its side. For that to work, multicultural Britain has to see an ally in King Charles. A voice unafraid to speak out against the systemic and pervasive racism that impacts so many lives. So far, he’s not done much of that.

The Prince of Wales views a guard of honour as he arrives at V.C Bird International Airport in Antigua.
The Prince of Wales visited Antigua and Barbuda in 2017 in the wake of two devastating hurricanes. (PA)

As the nation falls further into its cost of living crisis, and news of interest rate hikes brings the country closer to a full-blown recession, Charles’ talk of a slimmed down monarchy also won’t be enough. With less royal residences occupied, and royal duties now mostly being carried out by himself, Camilla, two of his siblings and the new Prince and Princess of Wales, the public will need to quickly see how the Royal Family can cost the country less under Charles’ reign.

Despite the years of PR efforts to position Charles centre stage and repair his image post-Diana, the Queen’s eldest son has spent much of his life overshadowed by others—from his mother, to Princess Diana and, in more recent years, his sons. Now is the first time he gets the spotlight and everything is at stake.

In his many years waiting for this moment, Charles has been groomed, trained and even stood in for the role of monarch. He entered this new chapter as prepared as he could ever be. It’s a sink or swim moment for the new King, who must quickly adapt to the times we are in and connect with people from all walks of life if he wants success. For if he drowns, it won’t just be him who disappears to the bottom—he’ll be bringing the entire monarchy down with him too.